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The World of Biblical Israel

The World of Biblical Israel

Course No.  6325
Course No.  6325
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

We all have associations with the word “Israel”—a modern-day nation in the Middle East that makes up part of the biblical Holy Land. But how did ancient Israel emerge? Who were the Israelites and where did they come from? What was it like to live in biblical Israel? Before unpacking these questions, it might help to consider how the very meaning of the word “Israel” evolved throughout the Hebrew Bible:

  • “Israel” first referred to a person, Jacob, the founding ancestor of the Israelites.
  • Jacob had twelve sons whose descendants became the “twelve tribes of Israel.”
  • Later, “Israel” became the name of the monarchy headed by King David and his son Solomon.
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We all have associations with the word “Israel”—a modern-day nation in the Middle East that makes up part of the biblical Holy Land. But how did ancient Israel emerge? Who were the Israelites and where did they come from? What was it like to live in biblical Israel? Before unpacking these questions, it might help to consider how the very meaning of the word “Israel” evolved throughout the Hebrew Bible:

  • “Israel” first referred to a person, Jacob, the founding ancestor of the Israelites.
  • Jacob had twelve sons whose descendants became the “twelve tribes of Israel.”
  • Later, “Israel” became the name of the monarchy headed by King David and his son Solomon.
  • When the monarchy divided, the northern kingdom was called “Israel” and the southern kingdom, “Judah.”
  • Finally, “Israel” came to refer to the Judeans who survived as a nation in exile during the Babylonian captivity.

In fact, the Babylonian captivity is at the heart of the Hebrew scriptures (known to Christians as the Old Testament) and provides a key to understanding biblical Israel—as a people, a kingdom, and a nation. It was during this period of exile that the Judeans systematically gathered their stories and defined their identity as descendants of Abraham and one of Jacob’s tribes. The act of storytelling helped to create a community in exile, preserving the Judeans’ sense of identity while they were separated from their homeland. This story of exile still resonates with us today, as we have seen numerous modern crises that resulted in the reshaping of national identity.

The World of Biblical Israel takes you on a journey through ancient Israel to introduce you to the world, the people, the challenges, and the triumphs of this ancient land. In 24 captivating lectures, Professor Cynthia R. Chapman of Oberlin College introduces you to the stories of the Judeans in exile and grounds them in their historical context, giving you a grand vision of history as presented in the scriptures. She compares the history in the Bible to the archaeological record, giving you a complete picture of life in biblical Israel.

Along the way, you’ll encounter the richness of the Hebrew Bible, which for thousands of years has been one of the most important literary and religious works in the world, foundational to all three Abrahamic religions. In fact, Judaism has maintained unbroken ties to this text, and studying it sheds light on how the religion is practiced today. Yet it’s not until you view the Hebrew scriptures in the context of the history in which they were written that you see how truly powerful their narratives are.

Experience a People in Exile, a Nation in Crisis

The Hebrew Bible contains some of the most influential stories in Western civilization, and we regularly encounter them today—not just in religious services, but in art, films, literature, political speeches, and more. The World of Biblical Israel takes you inside the stories, introduces you to the characters, and shows you what daily life would have been like for ordinary people. Professor Chapman introduces you to the complete literary power of the scriptures by investigating many of the Bible’s key historical moments:

  • The origins of the Israelites: The first five books of the Bible—the Torah—provide the ancestral history of the Israelites and set down a series of laws—many of which continue to be observed today.
  • The monarchic period: Under David and Solomon, the state political structure of Israel emerged, and then the kingdom divided under subsequent rulers.
  • The age of empires: Neighboring empires, including the Assyrians and the Babylonians, attacked and eventually conquered Israel and then Judah, and the resulting political instability created a tremendous economic and social burden for the Israelites and Judeans who survived.
  • The Babylonian captivity: The exilic period inspired the conquered Judeans, who came to see themselves as the remnant of ancient Israel, to reflect on who they were as a people, and it forced them to reconsider their worship practices.
  • Resettlement: Cyrus and the Persian Empire freed the Judeans from captivity, but the period of resettlement motivated the community to reexamine its relationship to its God, its land, its religious practices, and its legacy to the children who would become the new Israel.

In addition to learning about the period’s governments, laws, and wars, you’ll take part in the religious debates of the time. You’ll see how the gradual development of monotheism shows up in the language of the scriptures. You’ll also consider the philosophical and theological issues with which ancient Israelites wrestled:

  • Why would God allow the Israelites to be conquered?
  • How could the Israelites continue their worship after the temple had been destroyed?
  • Why does God allow evil in the world?

Explore a Variety of Archaeological Sources

While the Bible provides a wealth of insight, Professor Chapman also delves into the archaeological record and compares it to biblical accounts. For instance, the Bible presents two histories on the return of the Israelites from Egypt—in Joshua and in Judges. You’ll see why archaeological evidence favors the Judges account.

But The World of Biblical Israel is about more than the sweep of history. Professor Chapman zooms in on the daily life of ordinary Israelites. From the family compounds to the battlefields and from the kitchens to the temples, she puts flesh on the bones of the biblical stories.

  • Learn about marriage and the role of women by studying Eve, Dinah, Ruth, Jezebel, and others.
  • Reflect on social inequality in the story of Naboth’s vineyard as well as the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah.
  • Meet judges such as Deborah, Jephthah, and Gideon, and trace the development of law and society.
  • Study the importance of literacy, as indicated in the books of Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel.
  • Find out what the story of Jacob and Esau has to do with the later period of exile.

An Ancient Civilization Comes to Life

You’ll look at the art, relief sculptures, writing, and administrative records, not only from the Israelites but also from the Assyrians, the Persians, the Egyptians, and other peoples to see how they viewed ancient Israel. This method gives you a balanced, historical look at a truly fascinating time and place and puts you in the role of a history detective uncovering how life was lived in biblical Israel. Additional elements such as maps, family trees, and timelines provide an even more detailed visual representation of the people, their relationships, and the sites they occupied.

This course is such a treat because it provides the full historical context for the Hebrew Bible. You’ll enjoy Professor Chapman’s lively storytelling and clear examples, and you’ll be surprised by her grand vision of the scriptures—as if the history you’ve known all your life suddenly came into brilliant focus. Spiritually engaging and historically fascinating, this course is unlike any other—and it will give you a new appreciation both for ancient history and for the foundation of the Abrahamic faiths.

View Less
24 Lectures
  • 1
    Biblical Israel—The Story of a People
    What can the Bible tell us about life in biblical Israel? What do other archaeological sources tell us? Enter the world of biblical Israel with a historical overview and an examination of how the Bible gives us insights into the daily life of ancient Israelites. Then consider the context for how the Bible came into being. x
  • 2
    By the Rivers of Babylon—Exile
    Start your journey through biblical Israel with a look at the Babylonian exile. In this period, the exiled Judeans began asking themselves who they were as a people and why they had been conquered. Because the Bible began to be compiled in this time of exile, it offers us two vantage points for understanding its history. x
  • 3
    Ancestor Narratives in Genesis
    Survey the stories of ancient Israel’s origins as preserved in the book of Genesis, from the covenant of Abraham through the cycle of Jacob and his children. Ancient Israel understood itself to be a family that descended from Jacob, so these origin stories are crucial for understanding the books that follow. x
  • 4
    Moses—The Torah’s Central Hero
    Continue your study of ancient Israel’s origins with a look at Moses and the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. After tracing the narrative of Moses’s captivating journey, which includes receiving the Ten Commandments from Yahweh, the Israelite god, on Mount Sinai, you’ll review the Torah—the “law of Moses”—and explore the origins of the priesthood. x
  • 5
    Becoming the Nation of Israel
    Turn now to the emergence of Israel as a nation, which is detailed in the books of Joshua and Judges. What does each book tell us about the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan? And what does archaeological evidence tell us about this period? Learn about the origins and methods of biblical archaeology. x
  • 6
    Kinship and Economics in Highland Villages
    Enter the central highlands of ancient Israel and see what the houses, family compounds, and villages were like. How did people live? What did they cook with? How did they divide their labor? What were the roles of men and women? x
  • 7
    Three Weddings and a Funeral
    To explore some of the practices and beliefs that surrounded marriage, Professor Chapman focuses on several biblical relationships: Isaac and Rebekah show us what was considered an ideal marriage in ancient Israel; Abraham and Hagar reveal the importance of producing an heir in marriage; and Dinah’s abduction and rape by Shechem offers insight into the role of proper family negotiations in protecting a woman’s status in marriage. x
  • 8
    Political Power Bases in Early Israel
    Investigate three models of leadership—the judges, the elders, and the kings—each of which offers insight into ancient Israel’s structures of power. You’ll meet several men and one woman who rose to power during times of military crisis, and you’ll get insight into how they ruled. x
  • 9
    Kingdoms and King Making
    Begin a four-lecture unit on the political, religious, and economic developments that occurred between 1000 and 745 B.C.E. The unit opens with an overview of King David, Solomon, and the divided kingdom of Israel. What were the origins of monarchy? Why did Israel split into northern and southern kingdoms? How does the archaeological record compare with the biblical narrative? x
  • 10
    Politics and Economy of a Centralized Cult
    Delve into the intersection of politics and religion in Mesopotamia, from the Sumerian kings to the Egyptian pharaohs. Then consider the political and economic role of the temple. Use a variety of sources to reconstruct Solomon’s temple and its place in ancient Israel’s society. x
  • 11
    Worshipping Locally
    While the ancient states built centralized places of worship, many Israelites continued their local religious practices. Discover the household religions and the variety of gods and goddesses worshipped at the time. Then see what the Bible has to say about these deities and family shrines. x
  • 12
    Lives of the Rich, Lives of the Poor
    Learn the story of Naboth’s vineyard, in which King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, annexed land from a common man, and see what this story tells us about the monarchy and social classes. Then find out what prophets such as Amos and Isaiah had to say about living in a stratified society. x
  • 13
    Assyrian Incursion into Israel and Judah
    Travel to the “age of empires” and witness the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel. Thanks to Assyrian writings and recordkeeping, historians have a wealth of sources with which to explore life in this era. See how Assyria’s recorded history overlaps with the history preserved in the Bible. x
  • 14
    Life under Siege
    Turn now to the southern kingdom of Judah. After providing an overview of King Hezekiah’s reign and the Judean perspective on Assyria, Professor Chapman shows you how each side claimed victory following the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem. Regardless of who truly won, the survival of Jerusalem had profound implications for history. x
  • 15
    Religious Debates and Preserved Text
    In the 7th century B.C.E., Judah was a vassal of the Assyrian Empire. Delve into the period’s religious debates, including the worship of foreign gods and the division over centralized worship in the Jerusalem temple. King Josiah repaired the temple and enacted a sweeping religious reform that called for the worship of one god, Yahweh, in one temple. x
  • 16
    Ezekiel—Exilic Informant
    Meet the prophet Ezekiel, an eyewitness to the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and a first-person informant on the experience of exile. Ezekiel’s traumas become symbolic of the larger national trauma, and this lecture introduces you to his visions and examines the theological developments that came about as a response to exile. x
  • 17
    Life in Exile, Life in Judah
    What was it like for the Judeans living in exile? Different segments of the population had varying experiences following the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom. In this lecture, you’ll investigate what life was like for exiles in Babylon and in Egypt as well as for those who stayed in Judah. x
  • 18
    Literacy and Education
    Explore the origins of writing in the ancient Near East and the growth of literacy in ancient Israel. After looking at the earliest forms of writing, explore the rise of literacy in the monarchic periods. Then learn about the education systems in ancient Israel—the palace training programs, the book of Proverbs, and education within the family. x
  • 19
    Religious Developments of the Exile
    Chart the development of monotheism in the Bible, from a plurality of gods to the primacy of the Israelite god known as Yahweh. Then turn to Second Isaiah, “the prophet of monotheism,” who, in the final years of the Babylonian exile, envisioned Yahweh on a cosmic and universal scale. x
  • 20
    The New Israel—Resettling the Land
    How did the Israelites return to their homeland? And what issues did they confront after the restoration? With the Cyrus Cylinder and the book of Ezra as your sources, find out who returned from exile, what conflicts they faced in rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, and how they preserved their sense of national identity. x
  • 21
    Food and the Family Meal—Boundaries
    Step into the kitchens of the ancient Israelites and take a tour of their diets, from the fruits and grains of common villagers to the meats and fats of the elites. Then consider the bond that forms between people who share a meal and what effect dietary laws have on the formation of group identity. x
  • 22
    National Identity—Intermarriage
    Take a closer look at intermarriage with foreigners in the years after the restoration. In Genesis, the story of Dinah reflects the post-exilic anxieties about national identity. Likewise, the book of Ruth offers a rare glimpse into women’s perspective on marriage and survival in the restored Judah. x
  • 23
    National Identity—Twins and Enemies
    Revisit the story of Jacob and Esau in light of the quest for national identity. On one level, this narrative presents the history of two brothers and shows the rise of Jacob as he supplants Esau, the firstborn. On another level, the story captures the relationship between Israel and its neighbor Edom, and speaks to their continuing relationship in the post-exilic world. x
  • 24
    Loss and Restoration—Two Biblical Stories
    Conclude your study of biblical Israel with a look at the stories of Abraham and Isaac and the trials of Job. Each of these tells a narrative of loss and recovery, of displacement and restoration, and each asks questions about the nature of suffering and the mystery of the Israelite god. These questions—and what answers the text could offer—would have held meaning and hope for a community in exile. x

Lecture Titles

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Cynthia R. Chapman
Th.D. Cynthia R. Chapman
Oberlin College

Dr. Cynthia R. Chapman is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Oberlin College, where she teaches courses on the Old and New Testaments, suffering and the book of Job, and biblical women, among other topics. She holds a B.A. from Kalamazoo College, an M.Div. from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and a Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University. Professor Chapman's research has focused on the historiography of the Bible considered within the larger ancient Near Eastern environment, and on gender in ancient Israel. Her first book, The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter, explores the shared use of gendered literary tropes in the Bible and Assyrian royal texts. She is currently completing her second book, The House of the Mother: The Social Function of Maternal Kin in Biblical Hebrew Narrative, which demonstrates that kinship bonds established through the mother served vital social and political functions for a son who aspired to inherit in his father's household. A chapter has been published in the online Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.

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Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 16 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by A Biblical Mosaic Early in this course, the lecturer breaks from the narrative to relate a personal story about her family. Her grandfather was an avid reader of the Bible, who had completely annotated his copy with textual commentary and personal reminiscences of his family. The lecturer’s mother later tore pages out of her father’s Bible that included his descriptions of her children. The lecturer later framed two of her grandfather’s marked pages, hanging them on a wall in her home. Through three generations, the grandfather’s Bible evolved from a sacred book to a fragmented family diary to a displayed work of art! The professor uses this personal experience as a paradigm for examining the actual composition of the Bible, which, due to the unique circumstances in the sixth century B.C.E., fractured the historical record of a nation into a religious and literary mosaic of “a sacred memory of a conquered people.” The result was one of the most influential texts in all of recorded history: the Hebrew Bible. Professor Cynthia R. Chapman’s paradigm shift is to focus on the Babylonian exile of 586 B.C.E. as the starting point for unlocking the meaning of the biblical stories. After identifying those books of the Bible that describe the capture of Jerusalem and the forced relocation of the educated elite of the Judean population to Babylon, the lecturer backtracks to analyze the Book of Genesis. In back reading the story of the patriarchs in light of the Babylonian exile hundreds of years in the future, major themes emerge that all pertain to the trauma of exile. Through her thoughtful explication of biblical stories, Professor Chapman weaves together the exiles’ return to Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the people’s rededication to the covenant. These were the defining circumstances of the composition of the Bible that began in the exile and continued through the repatriation of Jerusalem after the conquest of Babylon by King Cyrus of Persia in 539 B.C.E. The selection of biblical stories, the genealogy, and the thematic material were all shaped by the singular experience of the Babylonian exile. This small group of people became “the memory holders of all Israel.” The nondescript course title, “The World of Biblical Israel,” does not do justice to Professor Chapman’s thesis about the evolution of the biblical stories and characters. In an attempt to be thorough, the professor seeks to examine a wide range of source materials. But the lectures that departed from the Bible to address archaeological discoveries or mundane topics, such as food and marriage, tended to break up the flow of the analysis of the biblical stories. The strength of the lecturer is not as an archaeologist or a cultural historian, but as a scholar of the Bible. Indeed, the professor saves the best part for last in a compelling interpretation of the stories of Abraham and Isaac and the Book of Job. This course pays great rewards for repeated listening or viewing sessions. The DVD version is highly recommended for the maps, timelines, family genealogies, and onscreen text. Those visual materials provide invaluable support for comprehension of the course content. The frequent timelines appearing on the screen are especially helpful for the viewer in following the professor’s back-and-forth discourse spanning a millennium of historical and literary development from 1400-400 B.C.E. In Lecture 14, Professor Chapman addresses the short-lived 701 B.C.E. siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian king Sennacherib. The lecturer carefully examines the historical record, which reveals that both the Assyrians and the Judeans claimed victory following the siege. As an earnest reformer who sought to reinforce ethical monotheism in his people, King Hezekiah successfully negotiated a settlement with Sennacherib, and Jerusalem was spared from the siege. But for a brief moment, the survival of the Judeans seemed very much in jeopardy. The northern kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed by the Sargon II in 722 B.C.E. If Hezekiah had not negotiated a treaty with Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E., the Judeans would have been, in the words of the professor, “yet another lost tribe.” The lecturer argues convincingly that the end of the siege was a significant historical turning point. Without the treaty, the Israelite nation might not have survived, and we would never have had the Hebrew Bible! Slightly more than a century later, Judea would be conquered by the Babylonians with a portion of the population relocated from their homeland in 586 B.C.E. It was there that the composition of the Bible began. From start to finish, Professor Chapman makes a persuasive case for the exile as the cornerstone of the Hebrew scriptures. This brilliant set of lectures unfolds the centrality of the exile as a way of shedding light on some of the most beautiful, profound, and humanistic writing of all time. Course Grade: A December 4, 2013
Rated 1 out of 5 by Asked for a Refund I'm sorry to have to write to this but I was very disappointed with my latest purchase: The World of Biblical Israel. I've ordered at least 12 courses in the past and have been satisfied by all of them, but this one is particularly poor. The professor presents a very skewed historiography of the time period and chooses to focus only on items of interest to her without regard to the best avenues to explore the time period. I did not order a history of ancient Israel to hear repeatedly only about women's issues. This course would have more aptly been named women's studies in ancient Israel. I received a refund for this disappointing excuse for a course on ancient Israel. July 6, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Good focus on Ancient Israel My biggest fear was that the course would analyze ancient Judaism through a Christian filter. However it did not do that, but instead looked at it on its own terms. It taught me some stuff, but was not all that advanced. One negative was that it didn't distinguish between mainstream scholarly views and those that might have been less widely agreed upon. July 2, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Sure and Steady One feels great confidence in Professor Chapman's teaching. She shows a clear mastery of ancient Israel's history and organizes and delivers this course with care and creativity. It's a fine achievement on her part, to be sure, to have so satisfactorily given adequate coverage to such a broad topic in only 24 lectures of 30 minutes apiece. Especially notable is the professor's solid inclusion of archeology and other historical sources to augment the Biblical accounts. Professor Chapman does her best work in the lectures that cover the history extending from the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem through the period of the exile and to the return. Her discussion of Ezekiel, Second Isaiah, and the leadership and accomplishments of Ezra are insightful, indeed splendid. The most innovative and valuable teaching in the course, in my view, is her exploration of the remarkable ways in which the exiles responded to their painful condition and transformed Judaism (and would, as well, later impact Christianity). The course flags a bit in its coverage of "daily life" - the lectures on food, housing, pottery,etc. I appreciated the learning on these topics but simply found the content of less interest and the professor's attempt to weave the material into the broader coverage of history and religion a bit forced. Further, there are several occasions when the teaching turns mostly into recounting the narrative of the Bible. It's OK to bring all learners up to speed, but too much of it weighs down the teaching. A good example is the professor's account of the encounter of Abraham's servant with Rebecca. She pays so much attention to telling the story she leaves herself no time to explore deeper possibilities. I would rather have heard the professor discuss, for example, the many ways Rebecca's actions of loving kindness commended her as a marriage partner (and leader!) rather than dwelling so long on the mere details of the marriage transaction we see on the surface of the story. When Professor Chapman dives deeply, she excels. Happily, she does so enough in a fine course of broad coverage to earn high marks and a positive recommendation. May 12, 2014
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